Sen. Harkin: A Champion of Strengthening American Values

February 19, 2013
Guest Post

by U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Pratt, Southern District of Iowa


In late January, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced he would retire when this session of Congress ends in December, 2014. I have known Tom Harkin since we worked together as young lawyers at the Polk County (Des Moines, Iowa) Legal Aid Society. The first paragraph of any article about Harkin must mention the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights legislation outlawing discrimination against those with disabilities passed in the congress of 1989-90. This is as it should be because that law has literally changed the face of America but there is so much more, however, that most people do not know about his work.

While at Polk County legal aid as a young lawyer he lobbied the Iowa legislature to pass the Uniform Consumer Credit Code, lobbied to eliminate the sovereign immunity for tort liability for governments, worked against those who wanted to raise the interest rates for consumers and challenged in the Iowa Supreme Court a loitering ordinance that was used indiscriminately against the poor.

Although Iowa is now a politically competitive state, it was not always so.  From the time of the Civil War, just as southern states were solidly Democratic, Iowa was solidly Republican.  It was once common wisdom that “Iowa would go Democratic when hell went Methodist.” Remarkably   Harkin, during his political career has defeated five incumbent members of Congress, and is the only Democrat in Iowa’s history to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. Along the way he has helped Iowa’s state Democratic Party to be one of the most progressive and best organized in the country. Harkin’s political legacy in Iowa is secure because of that and also because so many of his former staff and campaign people are prominent in today’s progressive movement.         

In 2008, the Almanac of American Politics called him “an accomplished veteran of Capitol Hill who brings the attitude of the aggrieved outsider to his work.”  His background as the son of a coal miner father and a Slovenian immigrant mother would tell you why he still considers himself an “outsider.” For anyone who has worked as a legal aid lawyer in the early 1970's remaining an outsider is not a problem. Throughout his career he has frequently been attacked by opponents for his positions on economic populism, the proverbial “class warfare” charge. Harkin has unapologetically defended his views that the government has a role in making peoples’ lives better. During his presidential candidacy of 1992 he talked about the need for building the country’s infrastructure and rolling back tax cuts for the rich. Today this is common wisdom within progressive circles; then it was not as many feared speaking about “trickledown” economics and increasing government spending.

The ADA often overshadows his other legislative accomplishments. While members of the public think of him as a rabid partisan his legislative accomplishments and his personality demonstrate his ability to get things done. While a first term member of the United States House of Representatives in 1975 he secured passage of the Harkin amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act which established that foreign states that engaged in a pattern of gross and consistent human rights violations were not eligible for certain forms of assistance from the United States.  This legislation also gave the United States Trade Representative discretion to deny “most favored nations” treatment to countries that abused the rights of workers and unions.  Through his recognition of the plight of child chocolate workers in Africa and child workers in other industries all over the world, he has managed to get both government and private industry involved in eliminating the worst abuses of child labor. Harkin’s work on the Senate Appropriations Committee has resulted in increased funding for the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (IAB). The IAB is in the front line in the fight against child labor, forced labor and human trafficking.   

In large part, his success in congress is due to his ability to work with members of both parties to pass legislation.  In 1999, for example, Harkin worked with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to approve treaty on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. In April 2010, The Hill newspaper reported that Harkin tied for the fourth most “bipartisan” Democratic senator.

He and the late Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) secured millions of dollars for medical research on cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other health problems that need research dollars. Harkin continues to secure funds for the legal services both nationally and here in Iowa. He introduced amendments to increase the funding stream to the Legal Services Corporation. As an example in 2006 the Iowa Legal Aid Program began a health and law program, which highlighted the relationship between the lack of adequate health care and legal problems of the poor. Harkin’s current chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) helped bring about the Affordable Care Act, which he has described as a “starter home” that needs to be expanded and improved upon to make health care a right. Harkin is fond of citing the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) as declaring that the HELP Committee “defines America.” Iowans have much to be thankful for in the work and life of Harkin, for it is one that has been devoted to both defending America’s values and defining and expanding its promise of tranquility and equality to the country’s most vulnerable.